Sam Webb: Before we get into talking about last week, just very generally, talk about the performance of your group this year. What have you been pleased with? What do you think they need to improve upon?
Mark Smith: “Well, I think if there’s a key word I’d say it’s consistency. I think we’ve gotten better. Some weeks I think we’ve played better than others, and I’d just like to see them keep making a steady climb always upward rather than taking a step up and then maybe a step back, or not playing as well as you’d like them to. The one positive I can tell you not only my position, but all the positions is these kids are working hard, and they want to win, and they want to be good.”
Sam Webb: Let’s go back to the tough loss last week. Obviously, quadruple overtime, opportunities in there. Brady talked a lot about mistakes, but before we talk about mistakes let’s talk about the things you thought your guys did well in that game. A turnover forced by James Ross, for instance. Just talk about the positives first that you saw in that game from your guys.
Mark Smith: “Well, a positive, not again just for my own position, but the kids fought. They fought hard, they didn’t win. They didn’t play well enough to win, but there were a lot of times in that game where they could have quit -- they could have given up -- they could have said ‘hey, it’s not our day’, and you didn’t see that from these kids. They fought -- obviously didn’t make enough plays to win, but you like that attitude in the kids, that they are resilient and they keep trying to come back and they made a game out of it when they could have very easily gone the other way. From my players’ standpoint, they played hard. I don’t think they played exceptionally well at times, but their effort was not ever questioned. Execution is the issue, and probably not just at my position, but all.”
Sam Webb: Talk to me about coverage. We talked to James Ross a couple weeks ago, and he talked about that being the aspect of his game that he really needed to work on, needed to get better in pass coverage. The tight end was a guy that he was on a lot in the Penn State game. Let’s talk about that, and what you see there, and what are some of the keys there to improving that area?
Mark Smith: “As James mentioned that’s been a heavy emphasis for us, not just from a zone standpoint, but even man coverage being able to play better man. First and foremost – and Coach Mattison is always the first one to say this, is that a lot of time your coverage comes better when you have good pass rush, they don’t have a lot of time to throw the football. I think we’ve made great strides with our pass rush guys. They’ve produced a lot more pressure and they’ve produced a lot more sacks this year, but from a coverage standpoint, a lot of it is – obviously the man coverage is what it is, I mean, I used to call it ‘cat coverage.’ You got this cat, and I got this cat, and let’s go play, so it comes down to just having eye discipline, and really being focused on my guy, and not looking through my guy to see if the ball’s being thrown. From a zone standpoint, a lot of it is formation recognition. Then also it has to be route recognition. What are the receivers telling me? After they start running their routes, where I need to go? Particularly with our WILL linebackers who play on the weak side. They’re always kind of dropping off what we would call number two receiver to their side, but the number one receiver to that side, if they’ll sneak a peek at, it tells them a lot of what they can expect out of two, or where they should head for their drop. So it’s as much of a mental preparation to play good zone coverage as it is physical preparation.”
Sam Webb: Is the challenge very different for MIKE versus WILL? We’ve seen Desmond Morgan, for instance, make some plays in coverage, some tremendous plays in coverage; or is it just a matter of experience? Is that why maybe we’ve seen him make strides quicker in that regard?
Mark Smith: “I think it’s a little bit of both, but I think you probably hit it on the head more than not with the ‘Desmond’s just played a lot more.’ He understands concepts better. the other guys are getting better at it, but Desmond is obviously a three year player for us now and I think he has become a much better student of the game. He understands the things I just talked about, with route recognition and formation recognition. What are they looking for as far as down and distance? Where do they have to get to? If a team needs third and ten, you’re going to get routes at twelve. They need third and six, you’re going to get them at seven or eight. You have to understand what they’re trying to do and where they’re trying to get the ball. “
Sam Webb: It’s a tale of two cities as far as the challenge of the kind of offense you’re going to face from one week to the next. Indiana is a spread, tempo type of team. They have cat quick slots as opposed to big tight ends coming at you all the time. Just talk about this offense you’re going to face this week, and the unique challenge, or challenges, that they present you guys.
Mark Smith: “First, the thing I’ll say is that Indiana is a much improved football team. Not just offensively, but you can see that they’ve improved on defense. They do create a situation that is not common week to week with the speed that they try to run their offense. We talk about tempo teams or no huddle teams, and Indiana by far will be the fastest team that tries to run plays at you as quick as they can. As we analyze and watch them on game film and TV copies and stuff, I mean, there are times where they’re getting the play off in ten seconds. They’re off the ground, and within ten seconds they’re up to the line and running another play. So the challenges there are, first, the kids have to be composed and they have to communicate. They have to know what defense they’re supposed to be in and get lined up. That’s the whole idea, I think, behind these high tempo offenses. They want to get you so you’re not looking at the right things, they want to get you so that you don’t have your hand or your feet in the ground, and they get you out of position, and they get you where you’re not focusing on the things that are important with that play, or that down and distance, or that formation.”
Sam Webb: We’ve seen a lot of Joe Bolden coming off the bench for you guys. How deep against a team like this that – like I said, a lot of tempo, and you talked about that they’re going to play with the pace that they play. Do you go deeper into your rotation at linebacker this week?
Mark Smith: “You know as well as anybody that our whole defense we rotate at almost every position, so it won’t be new to do that. But to answer your question, when a team’s going to try to get 80 to 100 plays a game, you’re going to want to keep as many kids as fresh as possible. So if we need to go deeper, we’ll go deeper. If we’re handling things better, and we’re getting off the field and they’re not having as many plays as they’d like to have, then we won’t have to do that. But the goal will be that kids never have to play more than 40 or 50 plays a game, total. Obviously, I learned that the hard way two years ago in the Sugar Bowl when Desmond and Kenny Demens played the entire game, ended up playing 80 or 88 snaps. By the fourth quarter they really didn’t look as effective as they did in the first quarter. To answer your question, we’ll play as many guys as we need to in order to get the win.”
Sam Webb: Let’s talk about some of those other guys, Joe in particular. We’ve talked about James and Desmond. What about Joe’s progression, and what have you seen from him thus far this year?
Mark Smith: “Joe has done a good job for us. Obviously, as in every kid, there’s always room for improvement. But the one thing you love about Joe Bolden is he’s a football junkie, and that kid has a passion to play football, and when you have that kind of attitude, and he’ll give you that kind of effort, you’re always going to get some good production out of a young man; so we’ve been happy with Joe, and obviously we have to continue to improve, but I think he’s headed in the right direction.”
Sam Webb: Two other kids that we’ve seen, either on special teams or maybe in the lineup some, Royce Jenkins-Stone, and then of court Ben Gedeon, who came in and was a guy who, from fall camp, Brady, and even you, when we’ve talked to you, you’ve mentioned that you’ve seen some positive things from Ben.
Mark Smith: “Yeah, both of those kids have, in my opinion, progressed and are getting much closer to being able to help us and play not just in special teams, but on defense. So this might be a good week to cut the umbilical cord, and stop being a protective parent. Throw them out there in the fire and see if they burn; but no, we’ve been happy with Royce and Ben, and hopefully both of them will help us get a win this week.”
Sam Webb: Back to Indiana. You gave us a synopsis of what they do offensively. Keys to the game for you guys on the defense when you’re facing a team like that? What must you do in order to come out victorious in this game on defense?
Mark Smith: “I don’t think it changes from week to week. First and foremost you cannot let a team run the football. That’s sometimes the false impression you get with these fast tempo spread teams, that they’re a throwing team. Indiana throws the ball, but they are much more effective, have scored a lot more points, and moved the ball better when they can effectively run the ball, not just throw it all the time. So first and foremost, as we go into any game, we’re going to make sure that we can stop the run. After that the biggest thing is, and Coach Mattison talks about it every week -- and we’ve talked about it since the first day we’ve been here three years ago to this past camp -- to keep the ball in front and inside. Don’t give up big plays. Make them earn what they get. They’re coached too, and they’re going to have good plays. Make their good plays good plays, get them on the ground, and go on to the next one. So if we can do those two things, if we can stop the run and keep the ball inside and in front, I think you have a chance to win every week.”